We Jews are almost as bad as the Gentiles
For the sake of argument
MORDECAI RICHLER CHARGES
I was brought up in a ghetto. And, as I recall it, we used to apply a peculiar standard to all men and events. "Is it good for the Jews?” By this test we interpreted the policies of Mackenzie King and the Stanley Cup playoffs and earthquakes in Japan. To take one example: If the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup from the old Montreal Maroons it would infuriate the English, and as long as the English and French were going at each other they left us alone; ergo, it was good for the Jews if the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.
Going back farther, to the time when my grandfather first settled here in 1900, there was never any question in our minds that there were two Canadas: yours, and
Your heroes, and mine
The first generation of Canadian-born children, myself included, were sent to their schools. According to them, the priests had made a tremendous contribution to the exploration and development of this country. Some were heroes. But our parents had other memories, different ideas about the priesthood. At school we were taught about the glory of the Crusades and at home we were told of* the bloodier side to that story. Though we wished Lord Tweedsmuir, the governor-general, a long life each Saturday morning in the synagogue, there were those among us who also knew him as John Buchan, the author of thrillers riddled with anti-semitism.
Always, there was their history, and ours. Your heroes, and mine.
The ghetto’s most significant characteristic was insularity. Outside of business there was a minimal contact with the Gentiles. But this was hardly petulant clannishness or naïve fear. In the years leading up to the war neo-Fascist groups were extremely active in
Canada. I can recall seeing swastikas and "A bas les Juifs" painted on the Laurentian highway. We suffered many indignities. And so, not surprisingly, we became antiGentiles. We looked down on the Goyim as our intellectual inferiors.
But you must remember that our anti-Gentile attitude was relatively harmless. As usual, too, the Jews began to see the humor in blaming the Goy for all their troubles. But all the same our isolation was so complete that I did not have any Gentile friends until I went to college. There, as it turned out. some of my best friends were Gentiles. There, too, I first became acquainted with the unattractive and negative results of anti-semitism on middle-class Jews. In reply to fraternities that excluded them, Jewish students did not denounce fraternities but formed relatively exclusive fraternities of their own, excluding other Jews and I suppose Negroes. 1 was coming to realize a difficult truth. Jews were not, as I had hoped, against discrimination. They were opposed to discrimination against Jews.
It was at this point that I left college and went to live in Europe. I lost touch with the Jewish community for a long time.
Back in Montreal, living within the Jewish community once more, this time after an absence of seven years, I found the changes that have come about in so short a period astonishing.
As far as I can see it’s still a matter of their Canada, and ours, but the young people who initialed their own restrictive fraternities have come of age and, unfortunately. are very much of their age. On all levels, even among older Jews, there has been a disheartening adjustment to the values of an advertising age. When I was a boy we had already begun to discard anything that made us appear different.
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MORDECAI RICHLER IS A MONTREAL NOVELIST WHO RETURNED TO CANADA NOT LONG AGO AFTER SEVEN YEARS ABROAD.
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Some business and professional men started to anglicize their names: Rabinovitch, let’s say, was reborn Rice, and Lipschitz, Lane. At the time, however,
the children were still given sturdy Old Testament names. We wfcre called Jacob, Sarah, Israel, or Sol. Today I find that children are more likely to have foreign - sounding names like Neal, Stuart, Marlene, or even Eugene. Some, I'm afraid, go even further. They have their noses bobbed. Naturally, the rabbis who serve such an up-to-date community are no longer severe men with splendid beards. Today’s cleanshaven rabbi is generally a regular guy. He no longer threatens the community with God’s terrible wrath but, instead,
organizes father-and-son breakfasts, golf tournaments, and bar-mitzvahs that are more suggestive of musical comedy than a boy’s acceptance into a faith that is thousands of years old. Yet these same people would have it that there has been a great return to religion and traditional Jewish values. I doubt it. What’s happened, it seems to me, is that religion has been modernized and, in the process, emasculated, shorn of most of :its mystery and beauty. Jews, I think, have become Canadian by renouncing much of what was singularly lovely in their heri-
tage. This is not to say that I expect Jews to return to the time of the musty synagogue over the grocery store, or that I think Jewish children ought to wear sidecurls again, but it looks to me as though we’ve gone too far in disowning our past.
When I was a boy I was told that we had to live in a ghetto because that was the only way we had survived thousands of years of oppression. Assimilation and intermarriage, I was told, meant extinction. And so returning to Canada it is ironic to see this same community, as insular as ever, doing unto themselves what they say the Gentiles have been trying to do since the beginning of our history, namely, to destroy those traditions that make us appear different.
Yesterday there was one ghetto. Today, as the Jews have prospered and moved out to suburbia, there are a series of such enclaves. No longer with much excuse, however. But when I put this to a seemingly assured young man, he replied, “Well, I just wouldn't feel comfortable living next door to a Coy.”
“All this brotherhood stuff is meaningless,” he said. "Underneath, they’re still anti-Semites.”
The same man then told me that because many golf courses are still restricted the Jews have constructed clubs of their own. Recently, there was a crisis at one of these clubs. A young Jew brought a friend of his, a Gentile, along to play with him. The Gentile liked the course and the people he met there so much that he applied for membership. After much heart-searching, his application was turned down. “Why?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “it wasn’t that they had anything against him personally. But they did feel that if they let him in others would apply. Soon, they’d all want to get in . . . and we’d be pushed into our own corner again.” (Years ago g member of a university faculty gave me the same pained, reasonable argument to explain why there was a quota on Jewish students.)
“What,” I asked, "if a Negro applied for a golf-club membership?”
“Oh, he’d be turned down," the man said, “but not because he was colored. Only because he was a Gentile.”
The next day I attended the opening of a new synagogue in the suburbs and any doubts I’d had that our values had been debased were quickly dispelled.
The ceremony was to begin outdoors with the cutting of a ribbon and the laying of a cornerstone. There had been raip in the morning, but half an hour before the festivities were to begin the sky cleared and, as a matter of fact, the ceremony started under a brilliant sup. “This,” the chairman assured us, “is an omen from God. He approves of oqr choice of a sanctuary for Him.”
And this, to begin with, angered mç.
I was appalled by the lack of humility implicit in the notion that our God, who seemed to be busy elsewhere when six million were murdered in Europe, had the time to indicate his pleasure with this suburban community.
Next, a man, described as illustrious came forward to lay the cornerstone. He was not a distinguished scholar, rabbi, artist, or doctor, as he might have been in the old days, but the richest Jew in town. Among the souvenirs he placed inside the cornerstone the only one named was “some currency of our time.” Money. If any of the rabbis present saw the incongruity here he failed to speak up.
Inside, as it turned out, the holy ark had been donated by the owners of a supermarket chain in memory of their
mother. Well, it was a fine gesture. But this too was quickly brought down to the level of bad taste. A young moonfaced rabbi rose, and after first assuring us that he had never known the lady in whose memory the ark had been given, he then went on to extol her in such hyperbolic terms that she appeared a saint. This was followed by further tributes so vulgar that I was no longer sure whether this was, indeed, a synagogue being dedicated or a new shopping centre that was being opened.
Í left in the middle of the young president’s speech. Outside, in the corridor,
1 came upon a plaque listing donors to the synagogue building fund in order of how much they had given, one thousand, five hundred, or a hundred dollars, and 1 was even further embarrassed. The synagogue. I felt, is either a moral force or nothing. It should be above expediency and beyond the seductions of wealth. But this plaque was evidence to the contrary. It was social blackmail. It would also have a horrifying effect on the children. For here, where they were to have their religious instruction, they could plainly see their fathers’ names honored or omitted in proportion to how much money they had given.
I walked away feeling ashamed. The Jews had, it seemed, come a long and depressing way in Canada. We had come to this country fleeing from persecution and had brought with us our traditional respect for the ethical, the spiritual, and the intellectual. But these were no longer the values we celebrated. As the community has prospered it has also become flabby, money - driven, and prejudiced. Today we are powerful enough to keep people off golf courses because of their racial origins, but in order to promote a so-called religious revival our synagogues, by and large, have become religious drugstores. A place of air-conditioned comfort and jingoism and platitude, where no serious moral reproaches are made.
Let nothing disturb us
Today's American rule says that nothing must disturb our complacency. Our television producers would no more serve us an unhappy ending on a Sunday night than cheat at cards. Best-sellers will always uplift. Learning must be made painless for the young. Politicians will pre-test their convictions through publicopinion samples. And so the synagogue, going the way it is, is only a small part of a larger pattern. But it is distressing to see religion adjusting to the times, and in particular to see my religion doing so.
The result, I’m afraid, is that we are no longer as different as we were. We are Canadians now, still a little off-white perhaps, but even so the cost has been prohibitive.
It seems to me that the Jewish middle class in their anxiety to prove themselves okay have taken the vulgarities of this bland, middle-class country as the desirable norm and, in many cases, have tried to go them one better.
There was a time when the ideal of the ghetto was the doctor. He, mistakenly, was taken to be the very apogee of learning and refinement, and in those days that was precisely what we admired. To have a son a doctor . . . well, that was the world. It was worth overtime in the sweatshop and the insults of the Gentiles. To have a son a doctor ... A Jew born in a stable might be the son of God. but no Jew born in a cold-water flat off the Main would get to be prime minister of Canada. If he got to be a doctor, though, the prime minister him-
self might come to him when he was ill. But even the doctor is no longer the ideal of the community. Real - estate agents earn more money. Why, today there are even cases of boys who have studied medicine or law but have turned to real estate as a more lucrative practice.
Now it’s not my place or intention to tell another man there’s anything wrong with making lots of money. This is, as they say. a free country. But all the same the whole business is very disheartening. And, speaking for myself, I find that
as a writer I’m in a peculiar position.
I have, in my time, written a couple of novels critical of Canadian Jews, and in return I’ve sometimes been accused of being an anti-Semite myself. Not in my wildest flights of anger, however, would I have invented a situation wherein the richest Jew in town dedicated a house to God by cementing money into a cornerstone. But, even more perplexing, I know that the feeling of most Jews on matters such as these, when approached individually, is one of acute embarrassment. They say, “Yes, it’s
shameful. Sad and shameful. But you mustn’t tell the Goyini. For them, it’s ammunition.”
The obvious conclusion is that while Jewish political leaders fatuously protest our Canadianism, even as they say how much at home we feel here, the Jewish community knows better and still lives apart and in fear. There's still your Canada and mine. This presents enormous problems to a Jewish writer. A Gentile, in my position, can ridicule the pretensions of the middle class and their clergy with a degree of impunity. He
has, it’s true, to face the tests of accuracy and artistic worth, but never will he be called an anti-Gentile. My people, unfortunately, are still so insecure here » that they want their artists to serve as publicists, not critics.
This is not to say that anti-semitism is no problem here. It’s tangible, you know, and not the fancy of a neurotic minority. But the danger doesn’t come from the swastika-painters; that’s lunatic - fringe stuff, and incidentally offers a platform for hypocritical politicians, Jew and Gentile, to make grandiose statements about how deplorable anti-semitism is. Don't believe it for a minute. For these days, as Dan Jacobson noted in
another context in Encounter, every rascal is a liberal. No politician, left, right, or centre, stands up who isn't bang-on for racial brotherhood. But we know, as E. E. Cummings wrote, that a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man. We also know more concretely that the politician whose heart bleeds for the Jews at a B’nai B’rith banquet is often en route for a cure at a restricted resort in the mountains or that, like Eisenhower perhaps, he golfs on a course that prohibits Negroes. Similarly, though, the B’nai B’rith official who has introduced the politician so warmly would probably disinherit his daughter if she married a Gentile.
Anti-semitism, as it exists today in Canada, is a more refined process than it was before the war. If there are no more Jew-baiting signs on the highways or even quotas at the universities, there are still hotels, country clubs, and entire suburban areas where Jews are not wanted, if no longer officially excluded. It comes down to this: Though nobody is literally threatening my skin these days,
I am, as a Jew, daily exposed to the possibility of small insults. This, even though my people have contributed beyond their numbers to the arts, sciences, and commerce in this country. As things stand I don’t play golf, it bores me, but if I decided to take up the game I would like to feel that I could join the club of my choosing or that if I were to be turned down it would only be because I, personally, am a boor. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Therefore, I am certainly not grateful, as some Jewish politicians say they are, to be a Jew in this country. True, I’ve never been sent to a concentration camp. But no Gentile is expected to give thanks to the government that doesn’t intern him. So why should it be expected of me?
However, if anti-semitism is unpardonable, the Jews, sad to say, have prejudices of their own that are equally distasteful. So I am not impressed with the anti-defamation league. (For Jews to fight anti-semitism, as I suggested earlier, is a question of self-interest.) What I long to see is the same rabbis who invoke the six million murdered in Europe also remind their congregations of those other innocents who perished in the Hiroshima of our own making. I would also like to hear them say a sad word for those Germans whose cities were criminally battered beyond strategic need. I will be further heartened when I see rabbis protest against the treatment of the Negroes in South Africa as, indeed, some Protestant bishops have already done.
It's time to abandon the old, humiliating ghetto standard, “Is it good for the Jews?" For to accept that as a yardstick is to finally succumb to anti-semitism; it is to agree that we are a narrow and second-rate people, and we certainly are not. We are Jews, yes, but we are first of all and more simply people, affected by whatever touches people anywhere, jç